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40 Years of Radical Media


[This is an abridged version of the original document. For information on how to obtain the original version, please contact TWN.]

Teach Our Children: Third World Newsreel’s Visual Manifesto

Cynthia Young

When filmmakers, film scholars, activists and many of those present in those heady days of the 1960s reflect upon the culture of the period, the name Newsreel almost always surfaces. For people involved in campus politics, local organizing or anti-war protesting, Newsreel films were a feature of the cultural landscape. As Michael Renov once observed, Newsreel helped to “construct a political imaginary for the New Left.”1

Although much might be said about Third World Newsreel’s contributions over the past quarter of a century through its film production workshop and its tireless support of emergent filmmakers, this essay will focus on its very first one, the film Teach Our Children. Directed by rookie filmmakers, Chris Choy and Susan Robeson, the film announces the group’s newfound political and cinematic direction. With its interweaving of front-line footage of the Attica prison rebellion and in-depth interviews with inner city residents, the film might quite easily be termed Third World Newsreel’s visual manifesto.

Teach Our Children, a collage of news footage and personal interviews set to a soul soundtrack, retells the tragic events of the Attica prison rebellion. On 9 September 1971, 1300 inmates, almost half the prison population, captured more than three dozen guards and employees at Attica Correctional Facility in upstate New York. The mostly black and Latino/a inmates were protesting the intolerable living conditions and vicious brutality of the prison guards. They were subjected to severe overcrowding, rationing of toilet paper (one roll a month), up to 16 hours a day in solitary confinement, severely restricted medical aid, and rectal searches before and after they received visitors, despite the fact that a wire mesh barrier separated them from their guests. In addition, the authorities arbitrarily withheld inmates’ correspondence, denied them access to newspapers and magazines, curtailed the religious freedom of Muslim inmates, and separated politically active inmates from the rest of the prison population.4

As one might expect, Teach Our Children, does not solely focus on the events of the rebellion. Instead, the film links the conditions at Attica -- overcrowding, police brutality, labor exploitation -- with the conditions in poor, black and Latino communities. The result is an angry, humorous, and ultimately powerful indictment of both prison and urban community life.

Interviews with inner city residents  link squalid prison conditions and desolate inner city life, illustrating that communities of color are economically and politically disenfranchised in much the same way Third World countries have been under imperialism.

We meet Carlos, a middle-aged, Puerto Rican man, who sits in a crumbling New York apartment, surrounded by his wife and several children. An ex-convict, he contends that US Third World peoples’ civil rights are routinely violated once they are arrested.

Carlos not only questions the legitimacy of the legal system, but he also indirectly raises the question of whether Attica inmates are criminals or rather economic and political prisoners. For instance, he describes the structural conditions that plague the people in his neighborhood.

The centrality of women’s roles in the domestic and “political” sphere is emphasized by a young, black mother. A moving counterpart to Carlos and his family, she speaks in detail about the perils of raising children alone in the ghetto. In one excerpt, she describes the area in which her children play:

I have five children and I can speak about genocide in every aspect that you can look at it in. I live in a housing project. We have no facilities here for children to play. We have a lot out there, a concrete lot about 20 x 40 feet. We have here in this one building about 70 children. Can you see little kids out there playing in a concrete lot with glass and everything?

A local community activist, this woman has resisted the disempowerment that often results from such structural neglect, opting to organize protests against the callous and inhumane treatment that plagues her community. She has maintained the ability to both critique the state apparatuses that restrict her existence and imagine an alternative existence outside of those limits. By demonstrating the persistence of this collective, oppositional imaginary, Teach Our Children situates them and other members of US Third World communities squarely at the center of their own destinies.

 Teach Our Children does not focus solely on the sensational aspects of the rebellion, as Newsreel would have done in order to jolt the viewer into instinctive sympathy. Instead, the viewer is given an analytical framework in which to understand a controversial current event. Teach Our Children traces the roots of inmates' dissatisfaction within the correctional system itself and in the communities in which they live.

If Newsreel crafted a political imaginary for the New Left, Third World Newsreel accomplished the same end for an emergent US Third World Left. By presenting a multi-generational, multi-ethnic, group of men and women, Teach Our Children challenged the very notion of radicalism that pervaded the decade of the 1960s. Radicalism was not only armed revolt, but also intellectual critique and communal survival. Rebels were not only bright-eyed, camera ready soul brothers, but also world-weary, middle-aged women demanding that playgrounds be built and rogue police be prosecuted. During the 1970s, “nation time” was as powerful a spur to coalition-building amongst communities of color as had been “black power” during the late 1960s. Third World Newsreel’s first film successfully incorporated the domestic and international platforms of earlier Newsreel filmmaking. The result was a scathing critique of the forces that placed Third World communities in the US and abroad under siege.


1 Michael Renov, “Early Newsreel: The Construction of a Political Imaginary for the New Left,” AfterImage. (Feb 1987), 14.

2 Michael Renov, “Newsreel: Old and New -- Towards an Historical Profile,” Film Quarterly v.41, no.1 (Fall 1987), 26.

3 I might add that the view that radical politics disintegrated after 1968 fails to account for the tremendous amount of political and cultural activism particularly within communities of color that flourished well into the 1970s.

4 These conditions were detailed in the 1972 McKay Report as cited in Malcolm Bell, The Turkey Shoot: Tracking the Attica Cover-up. (New York: Grove Press, 1985), 16-27.

5 Attica, Anatomy of a Tragedy, Special New York Daily News Report, published Oct. 4-8 1971, compiled by Joseph Martin, Nat Kantner, Donald Flynn, Alex Michelini, Jean Perry and Donald Singleton as cited in Herman Badillo and Milton Haynes, A Bill of No Rights: Attica and the American Prison System. (New York: Outerbridge and Lazard, Inc., 1972) 27-28.

6 All quotations from Teach Our Children are from the author’s transcription.


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